Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
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    Sep 2008, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Megan Shaffer

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Beyond the Book

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Author Muriel Barbery (who currently lives in Kyoto with her husband) reveals a passion for the arts and cultural practices of Japan as she incorporates references to Japanese poets, directors, films, and traditions into The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

The term wabi-sabi, in its simplest form, is the Japanese view of a simple aesthetic; less is more. Overall, it is a kind of quiet, mellow beauty that is uncluttered and alleviates the weight of the material. Originally two words, they have been paired over time to express harmony, grace, and simple beauty. One who is wabi-sabi has an understated appreciation of nature's beauty and finds peace in simplicity. Likewise, the term can be applied to styles of art, architecture, or design.

Basho (ne Matsuo Munefusa) was born in 1644 outside of Kyoto, Japan. Born into a prominent samurai family, Basho rejected his surroundings and became a wanderer. Living on humble donations from his growing number of students, he studied Zen and Chinese poetry, focusing on haiku and the meditative way of the ancients. In his belief that poetry was a source of enlightenment, he focused on simple images to inspire the profound, and approached poetry as a way of life. Basho is considered one of the finest writers of Japanese haiku - haiku being a form of lyric verse having three unrhymed lines of five, seven and five syllables, traditionally invoking nature. Read translations of Basho haiku (due to the challenges of translating Japanese haiku into English, the translations don't always follow the 5-7-5 rule).

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) was a Japanese filmmaker of great influence. With his unique technical style, Ozu is considered to be "the most Japanese of all directors." (Ozu: His Life and Films, by Donald Richie). With his career spanning 35 years, he took the genre of gendai-geki (contemporary drama) from obscure, to a level of high art. His films such as Tokyo Story and Sisters Munakata portray his contemplative, minimalist style, while focusing on the struggles of everyday life.

Shan Sa is a Beijing-born fiction writer who now lives in France. Born in 1972, she began writing at an early age, publishing as young as 8 years old. In 1990, she moved from China to France, where she studied philosophy, learned the language, and worked with the painter Balthus. She is the author of several novels including, The Four Lives of the Willow, Alexander and Alestria and The Girl Who Played Go. In addition to her award winning novels, Shan Sa is also a celebrated painter whose works have been exhibited in both Paris and New York.

GO, known as Wei Qi in China and Baduk in Korea, is said to be the oldest board game played in its original form. Go is a complex two player game which focuses on capturing territory, far surpassing chess in both strategic skills and scope. The idea is to conquer a larger part of the board than your opponent.  The placement of stones on the board (representing conquered territory) can lead to countless numbers of intriguing patterns as territory is acquired. Though intellectually rigorous, the game has fewer rules than most board games. Go is as intricate as the stones and boards it is sometimes played upon, which have been raised to great heights of aesthetic beauty by the Japanese. From simple to ornate, Go boards and stones are an art form of their own. You can learn to play go with this interactive tutorial (your computer may prompt you to install a Japanese language pack to view this website, it is not necessary to do so).

Article by Megan Shaffer

This article is from the February 5, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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